Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Art retrouve,” Poe Studies, June 1977, Vol. X, No. 1, 10:29-31


[page 29, column 2:]

Art retrouve

Wilfried Satty, illustrator. The Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. (distributed by Crown Publishers), 1976. 246 + iv pp. $15.

In the course of examining and recording data on over a thousand books and portfolios with illustrations of Poe’s works, I have seldom been so puzzled about evaluating the merits and relevance of an obviously considerable pictorial effort. Wilfried Satty, born in West Germany in 1939 and settled in San Francisco since 1965, has produced eighty largely full-page, black and white illustrations for twelve tales and two poems (scarcely the complete oeuvre implied by the title). The word “produced” is intentionally ambiguous, since these cannot be called drawings or sketches. Nothing in the jacket-cover blurb concerning “his own unique form of art” (probably by Satty himself), nor in his brief acknowledgments, nor in the Introduction by Thomas Albright, the friendly art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, tells us exactly what these strange-looking illustrations are. Mr. Albright perhaps furnishes a hint to the reader in saying: “Satty’s visionary heritage of Grunewald, Frederich, and Ernst has been counterbalanced by training and an early career in engineering and industrial design. . . . Satty has worked much as Poe did . . . reconstructing his visions with the utmost discipline, exactitude, and artistic ‘logic.’” The key word is “reconstructing,” for all the illustrations derive from prints which have been superimposed, overlaid, merged, and processed cleverly, probably through successive photography. The method, not acknowledged in the book, was developed in the early 1920’s by Max Ernst from Picabia’s dessins mecaniques into the collages which might be called “photographics” [this is the term of Ernse or of his major biographer, Werner Spies, q.v. in Max Ernst: Das Graphische Werk Ouevre-Katalog (Houston: Menil Foundation, 1975), I, ix-x, a form of what we usually call today “photomontage”]. By using enlargements, Ernst was able to conceal the intersections in the overlays and the differences of tone in the photographic or print papers. He usually added details or made changes to underscore the strangeness, the “surreality” of the whole and did not illustrate the texts of books with these works. By the 1930’s, Ernst had thoroughly mastered the technique, with which he was to be personally identified. For a comparison with Satty’s Poe illustrations, see Ernst’s print, “La Cour du Dragon,” showing a nineteenth-century interior with a couple kissing behind a painted screen in front of which is the waiting wife or fiancee, Ernst has drawn a serpent on the screen however, and a biblical-looking ruler. Ernst’s “Le Lion de Belfort” shows a “borrowed” gargoyle lion next to a statuary lion, both snarling at Ernst’s caricature of Napoleon on a wall [Brusberg Kokumente: Max Ernste — Jenseits der MalereuDas Grafische Oeuvre (Hanover: Kistner Museum, 1972), unpaged, plates 35.B (1934)]. In the 1975 Annotated Dracula, Satty took up this technique for his dozen “collage” illustrations, and he has extended it to the Poe volume, entirely without Ernst’s sense of satire and flair. He has “engineered” and “designed” the pictures, which are occasionally curious and arresting but rarely revealing. There are certain inevitable demerits to the approach when used for purposes of illustration. For one [page 30:] thing, how genuinely expressive can an artist be if he must “find” all his pictorial elements in earlier sources? This is a kind of voluntary strait-jacketing. Second, without drawing the major elements of the composition, how will he manage consistency in the various illustrations for a single tale, if he is unwilling to repeat “borrowed” central figures? For example, in “The Assignation” a double-page picture, bleeding off the edges, shows us a welter of Venetian architecture and the figure of Aphrodite in a balcony leaning out to the falling baby. But the next scene shows her as a completely different figure, borrowed from another print, displayed in a curtained window before a non-Venetian Gothic facade, while a third illustration shows two symbolic lovers (Victorian in style) in a bower of oppressively detailed foliage like a valentine decoration; discordantly we note the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence rearing its. tall structure at one side, with a tiny gondola at the other, merely to remind us of Venice. The last illustration for the tale seems a messy blend of an English ducal mansion of Victorian style and the chandeliers of a grand opera house, with a corpse carelessly bestowed in one corner along with a rosetted skull and an hour glass. The “medley of architectural embellishments” and “gaudy lamps” in Poe’s texts justifies the profusion, but not the dull and inartistic composition. Similarly, “Metzengerstein” is a porpourri of pointlessly diverse styles because of the collage elements. The large tide-page decoration shows two similar medieval knights seated with a Georgia O’Keefe cow’s skull exactly overhead. (Exactly symmetrical compositions are a besetting aim of most of Satty’s title pages.) Near the neighboring mansions of Berlifitaing and Metzengersrein in the following double-page illustration we find a third dwelling, used to fill out a blank space; perhaps it was left over from the original print used for that part of the picture and occupied too much space to be uprooted, for this artist of the “found” does not always know what to do with spaces left from excisions. Next, we find a blown up picture, probably taken from a detail of an Hieronymus Bosch print, with the young Baron, “nor yet of age,” represented as a winged child unwarrantedly wearing a helmet and bearing a sword. It is a startling but inappropriate interpretation of a character who will be neither angel nor warrior in the tale. As in many of these pictures, the “found” or inserted elements dictate the key conception, not the artist. The following illustration jumps across the centuries in style into the eighteenth century in France for a scene of “shameful debaucheries”: courtesans with bared bosoms and two nude lesbians. Next, a fiery horse, trailing unsuitable sears in the darkness, approaches a Metzengerstein dressed in rich Renaissance apparel. Last, riding a dark horse over large toadstools, the brash youth, photographically whitened to look spectral, shows himself as ignorant of the death’s head smirking in the overhanging tree — a transplant from “The Gold-Bug.” The last large vignette shows, quite symmetrically, a smoky horse over the battlements.

Every tale displays these contradictory and ill-assorted elements, probably found in far-flung volumes from different periods and settings and cleverly merged to give a startling, initially weird impression that quickly yields to a sense of being hoaxed. “The Pit and the Pendulum,” for example, opens with an impressive stage rendering of [column 2:] the judges, uttering their verdict upon the kneeling figure, but they number more than a dozen, wearing pointed hoods, like figures from a Ku Klux Klan group, with no visible faces, much less “lips” as Poe says; gratuitously Satty adds a large skull, hanging overhead like the helmet in The Castle of Otranto; the rafters, turned into living trees, are hung with five bodies, probably lynch victims from the original print. A small bonfire in the midst of the judges near a small skull adds nothing but confusion to the picture, while Poe’s graphic “seven tall candles” become two short ones. Next, Poe’s brief reference to “dungeons” affords an excuse for a double-page view of a medieval torture chamber, with the artist adding, I believe, only a gagged and manacled victim in one corner, plus one superimposed animal head on an ecclesiastic and a skull wall decoration. Once one knows the “secret” of the compositions, each new print prompts a game of finding the merged elements ant separating the pares. The pendulum scene offers a sinewy, realistic “strapped down” figure, on a pile of skulls, beset by disproportionately large rodents beneath the pendulum, surveyed by the ubiquitous “death.” One of the few attempts at consistency or continuity is afforded via the same polygonal cell in the next print, although the “demon eyes” of the wall figures loom out of the walls with disdain for the incised nature of Poe’s “pictured horrors”; and indeed, upon examination, they appear to be merely a troupe of gymnasts merrily cavorting. The last illustration shows a detailed nineteenth-century print of the citadel of Toledo above the bridge over the Tagus River; nothing has been added save a few large flowers near a small observer looking through a telescope and a winged stone female figure purposelessly occupying the righthand corner.

Neither has there been any care to arrange the poems and the tales together with their pictures in any meaningful or aesthetically satisfying continuity. For example, the bisymmetrical illustration for “Alone” shows a cat’s face benignly peering out of the center — for Poe’s “demon” cloud — over a life-like nude adult, markedly different from Poe’s child. Immediately thereafter is a bisymmetrical title page for “Scheherazade.” Nor is there any reason artistically or chronologically or topically for the order of the tales: “MS. in a Bottle” starts the book followed by “Ligeia,” “Usher,” “Rue Morgue,” “Dream-Land,” “Maelstrom,” “Assignation,” “Metzengerstein,” and so forth, ending with “Landor’s Cortage.” This last demonstrates well the characteristic weakness of Satty’s approach. The nearly bisymmeteical title-page illustration pointlessly shows two large butterflies on minutely derailed vegetation, followed by a lush, deep forest scene (for Poe’s “assemblage of light trees”). The next view is of a nineteenth-century valley-and-water scene, with two large, startlingly whitened superimposed roses at the bottom of the arbitrarily round picture. (The picture shapes are sometimes artily geometric or crudely symbolic.) The next — a rectangle — of dutchman’s breeches and daisies, seems to lack the illustrator’s manipulation save, perhaps, for a superimposed flying bled; likewise, the small swan in the next scene — of a stream or pond. The surrealist element can be found only in the perspectively warped birds and flowers, such as chose looming out of the cottage walls and foliage in the last illustration of the book. Mr. Albright’s introductory promise of an approximation toWalden is fortunately [page 31:] unfulfilled, as is his insistence upon the “artistic logic” of Satty.

This is by no means a collection of personal interpretations of Poe’s visions. Satty has ranged far for elements with which to indulge an ingenious but hardly original method of assembling imagistic elements, but has omitted almost entirely the direct record characterizing the inspired artists’ responses to Poe’s imaginative conceptions, such as those of Dore, Maner, Gauguin, Magrieee, Redon, Beardsley, Ensor, Alberto Mareini, Carlos Farneti, and Prassinos. These illustrations of Satty are constructions and reconstructions, devoid of true relevance or intrinsic beauty.

Burton R. Pollin, Professor Emeritus, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.


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[S:0 - PS, 1977]